Editor’s Notes: Shaun the Sheep is currently out in wide theatrical release. For more on the film, read Shaun The Sheep: Technically Miraculous and Utterly Charming by Greg Hill-Turner.
Leave it to Aardman Animation, the studio responsible for all the Wallace and Gromit shorts and their feature, Creature Comforts, Chicken Run and Pirates! Band of Misfits to produce a late Chaplin/Tati style silent film (that is, dialogue free but with sound effects and music) for children in 2015. Shaun the Sheep Movie is a long form version of the television show Shaun the Sheep featuring Shaun from Nick Park’s 1995 short Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave.
None of the gags fail to hit their mark (which is something amazing in and of itself) and the film provides a high level of entertainment for kids and adults.
The story is simple: Shaun is bored with his daily routine. He spies an advertisement on the side of a bus that says to take a day off. He hatches a plan to get the Farmer to go back to sleep (tricking him into counting sheep jumping over a gate) and once asleep, the sheep put noise-cancelling headphones on him and stick him in a trailer. Things are going great until the wood holding the trailer breaks and sends it careening toward the city. Bitzer, the dog, goes after the trailer while commanding the sheep, and Shaun in particular, to go back to the farm. They do this for a while, but Shaun gets worried so he decides to set out, sneaking onto a bus to help his friend Bitzer get the Farmer back. Once in the city, Shaun witnesses an overzealous Animal Control agent catch a dog and tries to stay out of site until another bus shows up and the rest of the flock comes out of it. Now Shaun has to hide his flock while looking for Bitzer and the Farmer. Meanwhile, the Farmer is hit on the head shortly after waking up in the city and suffers from amnesia so he doesn’t know to go back to the farm.
After that, lots of stuff takes place that is quite funny but to go into it would turn this from review to treatment very quickly. The writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak employ the same devise they use for the show that they also write and direct. They create situations for Shaun, the cleverest sheep you ever did see, to think his way out of while sometimes being helped but often hindered by the other sheep. Taking their cues from Wallace and Gromit, they keep the thread of an overarching plot while creating vignettes where they can tell their jokes. Each one serves the film, but could be seen as its own short with little lost. Their use of sound effects and gibberish for speech is inspired, as if we’re seeing the world from Shaun’s perspective. He can read, but he likely can’t understand human speech so all he and we hear is gibberish.
Don’t let the lack of dialogue dissuade you from this charming little film. It’s an asset, not a detriment and you’ll see that when a film is this well put together, words are superfluous.
The directors also understand pacing and keep the film moving at a good clip, leading from one gag to the next while building their story. The film is only 100 minutes long and you don’t feel any one of those minutes (unlike Fantastic Four where you feel virtually every one of its 100 minutes). They keep the gags coming but never let them outshine the storyline and keep everything neatly contained.
The film, like all of Aardman’s work (except the forgettable Flushed Away from 2006) is in stop-motion animation. It’s kind of impressive that they did an entire TV series last year and still managed to get this film out (which released in Great Britain in 2014, the same year the show premiered). These types of animated projects take years to complete, so they must have intended on a movie at the inception of the show.
The true marvel is that the film is done without dialogue and without intertitles, like one of Jacques Tati’s films. I say that’s a marvel not just because it actually got made and released but because it’s aimed at kids who seemed to enjoy it (though the theater I saw it in was sparsely populated, everyone in there was laughing throughout). Burton and Starzak tell their story economically and fill the film with enough gags to keep anyone engaged and entertained. They also layer in quite a lot of character, making each one rounded and understood. These sheep are more developed than most film characters in a summer movie and none of them even talk! Their motivation is simple and their emotions clear and you get the sense of Shaun, Bitzer and even the Farmer. The sheep in the flock are not that defined, but they’re a flock of sheep so I don’t think they’re meant to be.
This is normally where I would air my grievances with a film, but here I don’t really have any. The only point I will make is that it does get pretty dark near the end when the Animal Control agent completely unhinges with hatred of Shaun and follows him, Bitzer, the flock and the Farmer back to the farm where he tries to kill all of them. It’s pretty harrowing stuff for a genial kid’s movie. And even that isn’t a quibble, just a friendly warning.
Shaun the Sheep Movie may not be one of the great animated films, but it is an amiable, delightful and often hilarious film with a lot of heart and though it depicts the act of missing a loved one, it seldom gets sentimental. None of the gags fail to hit their mark (which is something amazing in and of itself) and the film provides a high level of entertainment for kids and adults. Don’t let the lack of dialogue dissuade you from this charming little film. It’s an asset, not a detriment and you’ll see that when a film is this well put together, words are superfluous.
Shaun the Sheep Movie may not be one of the great animated films, but it is an amiable, delightful and often hilarious film with a lot of heart and though it depicts the act of missing a loved one, it seldom gets sentimental.